Muzaffarnagar: BJP candidate says ‘this time it’s about swabhiman, not sadak’

BJP’s Sanjeev Ballian campaigns in Muzaffarnagar.                  Gajendra yadav BJP’s Sanjeev Ballian campaigns in Muzaffarnagar. (IE photo: Gajendra Yadav)

The ‘danga’ or the riot last September is in the fray this Lok Sabha election in Muzaffarnagar. It is upsetting old caste certainties and elbowing out other issues, making this, by all accounts, a predominantly Hindu-Muslim election. What remains to be seen on April 10, when people here cast their vote, is which party’s candidate gains most from it — it is a multi-cornered contest in a region where Muslims, Dalits and Jats are the three largest groups, in that order.

The reigning common sense predicts big gains for the BJP, and the party’s message is clear. “I will not talk of development, this is not the time to talk development,” says BJP candidate Sanjeev Ballian, who is a Jat and was accused of inflammatory speeches at a Hindu mahapanchayat on August 31 last year that led to the conflagration which pitted Jats against Muslims. He was jailed for 27 days.

Out on bail, campaigning in village Durganpur, Ballian tells the waiting crowd of mostly Thakurs: “It is about swabhiman (self-esteem), not sadak (road). The verdict from this area must be one-sided. You know what to do. There is nothing more for me to say.”

At the end of the short speech, he strides to the village temple to pay obeisance, before resuming his whistle-stop tour of 22 villages amid slogans of “Vande Mataram” and “Modi Zindabad”.

Ballian tells The Sunday Express that the issue this election is: “What will happen to the 6,250 youth? They must be saved.” He is talking about the Jats accused of killing and rape in the rioting last year. It was an anonymous, faceless “mob”, he claims, alleging that most FIRs are fake. “How can you have FIRs filed in rape cases after a month? How can both father and son be accused of the same crime?” Should he be elected, Ballian pledges a reinvestigation of all riot cases.

At Durganpur, speaking before Ballian, Umesh Malik, who stood for an Assembly election on a BJP ticket and lost, taunted SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav: “You cannot be prime minister of Hindustan. If you want to be PM, you will have to go to Pakistan.”

At the next stop, a Rajput-dominated village called Biral, the tone and tenor of the Ballian campaign is unchanging. “This is a maan-samman, bahu-beti ka chunav,” says Malik. “Let’s win this election and show the world,” says Ballian, “Vikas toh hota rahega, development can wait.” In his audience, Rajnish, who teaches in a school, is both exhorting and asserting when he says: “This time, everyone must vote as a Hindu. Jaati (caste) will not be a factor.”

Ballian’s main opponent in the election is seen to be the BSP’s Qadir Rana, the sitting MP. Like Ballian, he is accused of making a hate speech in the run-up to last year’s rioting, at a Muslim panchayat on August 30.

The common sense here also is that Rana, who won on a Dalit-Muslim vote the last time, is in trouble — from both sides. For one, the BSP’s Muslim-Dalit alliance seems shaky in a communalised “danga” election in which a section of the Dalits is also seen to be shifting to the BJP, to vote as “Hindus”.

In Nirmana village, in the Dalit (Jatav) basti, many say they voted for Rana last time but are equally open about the fact that this time they do not support the BSP’s Muslim candidate. “This is a Hindu-Muslim election,” says Sri Ram, “with no room for jaativad”. According to him, the main factor in making it so was the Mulayam Singh government’s (virtually no one here calls it the Akhilesh government) “one-sided” or “partisan” response to the riots, an euphemism for its perceived pro-Muslim bias.

While the riots raged mainly between Jats and Muslims, what drew little attention was that other, particularly backward groups, including Dalits, were also affected by the ensuing tensions. There are stories of Dalits and other lower caste groups migrating out of Muslim-dominated villages, even as Muslims fled the Jat-dominated villages.

And what of the Dalit’s famed allegiance to Mayawati and BSP? “If Behenji gives the ticket to the wrong candidate, he doesn’t deserve our vote,” says Satish. Of course, among Dalits, the last word has not been said in this election — everyone here is keeping a watch on the attendance at Mayawati’s first campaign stop in this area on April 4, which may well rally the reluctant in her flock.

Among Muslims, with the BJP on the aggressive and Modi at the helm, the dominant imperative seems one of watchful caution. The final decision to vote will be taken in the last day or two before voting day, many say, and it will hinge on which party’s candidate seems best placed to defeat the BJP. In other words: if Qadir Rana seems to be losing a significant section of the Dalit vote, the community could decide to back the SP’s Gujjar candidate against the BJP. For now, however, the polarisation appears to have nudged many a Muzaffarnagar Muslim back into the SP’s fold — the party that traditionally nurtured the Muslim vote in UP, but also the party that presided over last year’s rioting and subsequent large-scale displacement of Muslims from their villages to relief camps.

At one of the last remaining relief camps in Jaula village, now into its seventh month, no one has got compensation, nobody is willing to go back to their village. But almost everyone has a voter card, and they pledge allegiance to the SP. The failures and abdications are of the local administration, they say.

“It is the DM’s fault, he kept us out of the distribution of relief,” says Nazir. “We may not have got anything, but we have hope, because our brothers have been helped by this government,” he says. In Muzaffarnagar town, Mufti Zulfiqar Ali, local notable, chooses to describe the SP government as “laparvah” or careless, rather than callous. Muslims have “shikwa” or reproach for the SP government, he says, not accusations.

“It’s only in this seat that the riot may have changed things,” says Chaudhary Mushtaq, RLD MLC. “In all the other seats in western UP, the RLD has an edge wherever it has put up candidates,” he claims.

But in Muzaffarnagar, for now at least, it is clear that communal polarisation after last year’s violence has unsettled two of this area’s hard-won political alliances: the traditional time-tested Jat-Muslim combination that was nurtured and cemented under the Lok Dal umbrella by Chaudhary Charan Singh after he stepped out of the Congress in the 1960s, and since then reaped electorally by the RLD. And the BSP’s social engineering formula which helped it to its best-ever performance in western UP in the last Lok Sabha election — in Muzaffarnagar, by adding its core Dalit vote to the Muslim vote rallied by its Muslim candidate. By common consensus, the party that stands to lose the most is the RLD, while the gains will be made by the BJP.

Of course, the danga did not do it alone. The toxic mix of rumour and fear that has so poisoned the pre-poll atmosphere in Muzaffarnagar may have been fed by subterranean resentments that had been building for long. Last year’s violence was triggered by a Muslim boy allegedly molesting a Jat girl — this story is contested in Muslim narratives that claim it all began with an altercation between hot-blooded Jat and Muslim boys on motorcycles. But the fact also is that in this area, inter-community tensions have been brewing. There are far too many stories of “chhed-chhaad” and “love jihad” — of Muslim boys allegedly wooing Jat-Hindu girls to convert them — that predate last year’s eruption for it to be seen as a sudden or unexpected ambush on a famed Jat-Muslim unity.